HomeRail NewsSetting a broad goal - RSSB champions innovation

Setting a broad goal – RSSB champions innovation

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The drive for greater efficiencies in Control Period 5 (CP5) has hit the news recently. Network Rail has been criticised for not achieving targets which some claim were impossible anyway. Whatever the truth may be, the railway needs to save money. This can be achieved by working more efficiently and innovatively. If things continue to be done the way they always have been, there is no way that efficiency targets will be met. It’s basically a case of “innovate or fail”.

But introducing innovation onto the railways has historically been difficult. There is a great deal of inertia, or at least there has been, and a fear that new ways of doing things, and new technology, are inherently unsafe until a great deal of testing has been undertaken to prove otherwise.

Role of RSSB

Naturally, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) is heavily involved in this. On the one hand it is the protector of railway standards, on the other it is all in favour of innovation.

Chris Fenton has been the RSSB Chief Executive since January 2014. The Board was set up in 2003 off the back of recommendations from the Cullen report. It has evolved through those twelve years, adding scope to its activities.

“I suppose the two things that struck me were the technical credibility of the organisation and the commitment of its people,” Chris told Rail Engineer recently. “People like the fact that we’re cross-system, so independent of any one perspective. We have our own experts and a strong evidence base which helps industry decision making.”

“My first question on joining was – what is RSSB?” Chris smiled. “We carried out a survey and found that people liked what they knew about, but they didn’t know all the things we did and how they fitted in. We therefore had a communication job to do, fitting that into the context of the rest of the industry.”

One of the ‘things’ that RSSB does is support innovation, although that may be included in the areas that need better communication. For example, the Future Railway Programme is an RSSB-run collaboration with Network Rail. The programme is an initiative which promotes innovation through collaborative support and a series of design competitions.

“Going back four or five years, innovation wasn’t discussed nearly as much and it really had quite a low profile,” Chris stated. “There was a recognition that the industry needed to be more innovative and I think, at that point, RSSB was actually quite influential in creating and developing with the industry the Rail Technical Strategy. That provided the confidence, the governance, to start saying we will define some money for innovation in the CP5 determination. That is leverage because we get match funding from it, so I think RSSB was influential at that point in time and should continue to be so.

“If you look at some of the publicity that’s coming out now, everybody’s talking about innovation. There’s lots of examples and, as we get into the CP6 planning process, then the challenge is – how do they start getting used? Our role is one of working with the industry on particular projects, particularly around demonstrators, so that’s mid- technical level maturity projects. It’s not all blue-sky stuff, but how do we show something could work?

“The battery-powered train was an excellent example of that. It’s not massively innovative technology, it’s technology that’s used on buses, but it’s about actually showing it could work on trains and helping people plan and think about electrification or some of the costs involved with intermediate gaps and the last parts of the line. I think it starts to open up ‘people’s’ thoughts and that’s what innovation should be about.

“Part of the challenge of innovation is not to be prescriptive about what we’re looking for. So it’s not going out saying: ‘I need a battery powered train’, it’s going out and saying: ‘How could we achieve the following?’

“For example, one of the competitions that was run some time ago was looking at increasing capacity and a whole series of projects came from that. Some people were saying: ‘We think we can do some mathematical modelling that will improve signalling systems.’ Somebody else came back and said: ‘Actually, you could redesign the way points work and you’d be able to make them more efficient.’


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“So, in part, innovation’s about setting that broad goal, what it is that you want as an outcome, and allowing a broad response – not just from the existing suppliers but others elsewhere, internationally and domestically. They may not be supplying them today, but they can say: ‘Have you thought about this?’ and I think it’s that type of framework that RSSB, in running those competitions, has been helpful.”

Cross fertilisation

RSSB’s involvement is also useful when cross-industry cooperation is needed. For example, when testing the battery-operated train recently, Bombardier supplied the battery technology, Abellio made the train available and Network Rail facilitated the testing on the network.

“In those circumstances, by using funding from within Network Rail’s settlement and from that provided by DFT, then encouraging industry match funding, we enabled a lot of things to start happening,” Chris explained.

By putting together this type of combined and match funding, RSSB can support high benefit, high risk projects and opportunities. If they’re high benefit and low risk, somebody’s going to do them anyway. But in funding, or at least part-funding, high risk projects then there is always the chance that some will fail. That’s the nature of innovation.

“In a lot of other industries, people will often talk about innovation as the small, incremental, continuous improvement tactic that happens with the engagement of employees and everything else,” Chris Fenton continued. “They call that innovation and then they talk more about research and technology and about how you develop the technologies that are necessary and therefore our language doesn’t always translate. What we’ve been successful at doing is getting this onto the agenda. We’ll now start to go onto the next generation of working out how all these technologies map through, and we’ll continue to be involved with the debate with the train operators, with the supply chain and with Network Rail.

“People always say the rail industry is risk averse but that’s not the characteristic I find in people. I think everyone is looking to try and do the right thing for the railway and for passengers. So I wouldn’t say that the individuals I meet have any lack of ambition and I think it’s entirely right that, when you’re implementing any changes, one assesses the risk on that.

“If I’m flying on an aeroplane, then I’d quite like the manufacturer to be reasonably risk averse in the way they put it together. That doesn’t mean that aircraft makers aren’t innovative, so being innovative and being risk averse aren’t necessarily contradictory.”

The Rail Technical Strategy aims to be clear in what is needed. There is no point in a company proposing a new type of toolbox if the industry already has 15 different toolboxes to choose from. Rather, the industry should say: “I’ve got a problem with this” and, if the suppliers move quickly and the approval process is robust, then that will accelerate innovation and implementation.

Out and about

To get its message across, RSSB has arranged engagement days in Edinburgh, Manchester and Derby, working with people where they are rather than expecting them to travel to London.

A lot more thinking is going into developing packages for training and guidance on topics such as making safe decisions and non-technical skills.

Chris Fenton explained his thinking: “If you’re running a factory making widgets, then your logistics challenge is how you get your widgets to market. Well, we don’t make widgets, we make knowledge and understanding so communication is key.

“One of the organisational changes we made is to appoint John Abbot as our director of member engagement. He’s brought in Mike Carr and Alan Tordoff from Network Rail and D B Schenker with a specific remit to consider how we actually communicate. That’s a two- way process, both going and talking about what we’re doing but also listening and bringing back in the work that we do.”

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Personnel development

“That is one change as communication is something we have looked to improve. The other area is how we develop all our people, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking on that, particularly as we get people approaching retirement. How do we develop our people internally and engage with the people externally that might do those roles?

“If you walk around the office you’ll actually see we’ve got people from inside the industry and outside, we’ve got approaching 40% women now, we’ve appointed ten technical leads, three of whom are women. So rather than saying: ‘You have to move up to line management’ we’re now saying: ‘You can develop technically without necessarily being a line manager.’ Lots of organisations do that.

“I’m also very much promoting the fact that people join us and they shouldn’t necessarily say: ‘That’s where I finish my career.’ When anybody starts in the organisation, in their first few weeks I sit down with them and with three or four people at a time and we just talk through where they’ve come from, what they bring and talk a little bit about the values and how we work as an organisation.

“One of the things I say is: ‘We think RSSB’s a great place because you can build up a real appreciation of the rail industry here, you touch it in lots of ways’ whereas if you’re with a train operator you just see that bit of it, if you’re in Network Rail you see just the infrastructure. Here you can see everything, so it’s a great opportunity to learn a lot about the railway and how it works.

“I think that people ought to be joining RSSB and then moving on in four or five years. One or two people are quite shocked. ‘I’ve only just joined last week and you’re trying to push me out!’ but we have that philosophy.

“We’ve also got a number of secondees in here. Network Rail have got some people here, for example, which helps us because they bring some particular skills, and they tell us that this is actually part of their career development.

“But it’s not just engineering. We’ve got the largest human factors team in the industry, fourteen people. Behaviours influence a lot of how you manage risk and understand safety. Experienced engineering is a really important part of what we do, but all the other parts are important too – we want the diversity in every aspect.”

To make RSSB more efficient, Chris has also moved the operation from Islington, behind Angel tube station, to One South Place near Moorgate. 30,000 square feet has become 23,000 yet the number and size of the meeting rooms is unchanged. And meetings, both internal and with the wider industry, are largely what RSSB is all about.

So Chris is doing his bit to keep costs down, and efficiency up. Now the rest of the rail industry has to follow suit.


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